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The Presence of Virtual Leadership

Blog, Australia, 16 October 2020: It’s not unusual for us to say that this year has been a struggle. Each of us has had to dig deep and find out what leadership style and skills we choose to demonstrate to our teams, during these uncertain times of COVID-19.

Some people have thrived while working within uncertain and remote environments, and others have found the motivation and ability to build resilience a struggle.

Each of us has no doubt learned from our own experience, or from others. What we can collectively take form all of this is that it’s OK not to be OK.

This blog looks at the perceptions, learnings and tools of uncertainty, remoteness and resilience.

Our experiences

Uncertainty: If we have to sum up 2020 with one word, I think uncertainty would be up there. Today’s environment of travel restrictions, social distancing and working remotely have us all operating within an ambiguous environment. The root of the concern seems to have been chiefly in wanting to be able to provide clear direction but not having enough confidence in the information available to generate unambiguous intent and priorities.

Remoteness: Traditionally, I would say most companies are not used to the remote nature of work. There is a lack of control, team connectivity and workflow visibility. For some leaders, the concept has been a difficult transition, as new ways of working were introduced rapidly, without training, preparation, digital tools and support for managers and colleagues. Feedback received from colleagues, family and associates stem mostly from lost ‘human contact’ and misplaced expectations, as some have struggled on, more than others.

For many, our lives enjoyed the morning routines, our sacred commutes where we listened to podcasts, caught up on news or with families, we planned our team lunches, enjoyed regular morning teas and cakes, celebrated wins, birthdays or maternity leave, we’d build client and colleague relationships over coffee with meetings on-the-go, and let’s not forget the all-important after-work-drinks to blow off steam. All of that now, and for most of us, has been brutally exchanged for the remoteness of eight hours of screen time per day, five times per week.

Resilience: We’ll look at this from two perspectives, our own resilience and others’ capacity for resilience. During times of uncertainty and remoteness, we are at risk of becoming detached and even depressed at our ability to perform to previous or expected levels of work. There are different distractions than before, such as homeschooling, our partner’s work-life impacts, financial burdens are increasingly stressful as we cling onto work, and let’s not forget domestic and extended family pressures which all impact our personal life.

As leaders, we are expected to maintain a level of status quo, to keep the balance of performance, pressure and positivity in check; even in the absence of the support tools both we and our teams need to adjust to new ways of working. So, as leaders, there is a certain amount of ‘solution pressure’ which can bubble and boil in the background, while we maintain a face of resilience, strength and perseverance.
At a time when our own resilience is low, it is important, more than you realise to find the energy and resilience to support others.

What can we learn?

Uncertainty: Even before Covid-19, our ability as leaders to cope with ambiguity seemed to be increasingly important. Covid-19 has made this ability vital. Most of the reflections on ambiguity relate to operating in a much more agile way. Being prepared to accept ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn. Building a culture that supports agility seems to have become more important.

Resilience: There are many factors in building resilience (personal clarity, dynamic thinking, physical/emotional health and supportive relationships). Covid-19 has been a particularly tough time for managers who regularly soluionise problems for others. Perhaps the key to this is to transition your role from a ‘hands-on manager’ to ‘coacher’, so you can guide staff on realising the strength of their own problem-solving skills and thus, thrive through building up their own resilience, and yours in the same process. 

As with anything in life, take pleasure in the small things in life, and importantly, know what you can and cannot control, as well as what is a priority and what is important. Our ability to manage challenges is knowing how and what we can influence.

Remoteness: Leading remotely is a concept we have not signed up for willingly, but now we find ourselves in this situation, it has highlighted the importance of leaders who are able to constantly invest in relationships and are able to communicate easily and consistently with others. 

What should we do now?  

Uncertainty

  • Plans can change, and that’s OK! Keep the communication lines open, plan regularly with your teams about the priorities.
  • Making mistakes is OK, it’s how you recover from them that’s important!

Resilience

  • Provide the tools your teams need to survive. Talk about the difficult subjects, follow up with helplines, advice, support tools. It’s OK not to be OK.
  • Focus on the team health of yourself, your family and your team. Walking challenges – 6000 steps or more a day. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a healthy mind and body.
  • Focus on what you can do, rather than on what you can’t.

Remoteness

  • Invest in your people both as a team and as individuals.
  • Understand their work and personal challenges. What can you do to coach them?
  • Walking meetings, team bonding drinks, coffee meetings, icebreakers, get to know your teams all over again, in their new environment.


The context for leadership in Australia, and the rest of the world has changed and this means we have to adapt to how we lead. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all. Many are facing financial uncertainty, disruption to families and communities, and mental health challenges—some for the first time.

The Australian Government is raising awareness of the importance to prioritise mental health and the need to seek help and support when something is wrong. Information, advice, phone and online support and services are available.

If you need support: 

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